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Highlights Archives

Martin Luther King Jr. & Highlander Folk School


Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at Highlander Folk School's 25th anniversary, August-September, inside the Highlander Library
WHI 52822

Young people are often shocked at the complacency with which, just a few decades ago, their parents and grandparents accepted injustice. One has to be more than 50 to remember when the local newspaper routinely divided classified ads into "white" and "colored" — and most readers thought nothing of it. That situation changed because Americans gradually altered their beliefs, values and social institutions. Today most of us take for granted that racism is bad and that equal opportunity is good. But people who held those values 50 years ago belonged to an unpopular minority, and advocating such ideas in public cost many Americans their lives.

The Highlander Folk School

One of the organizations that facilitated the great change in our society was the Highlander Folk School. Founded in Tennessee in 1932 and still thriving, Highlander is an adult education center that supports "people fighting for justice, equality and sustainability, supporting their efforts to take collective action to shape their own destiny." During the 1950s and '60s it trained civil rights workers in law, nonviolence, community organizing and other techniques of social change. In 1971 the school shipped most its archives to the Wisconsin Historical Society, where they could be preserved and shared.

But back in 1957 Highlander drew the ire of government officials and was denounced in the media for its 25th anniversary celebration. Attendees included civil rights advocates such as Ralph Abernathy and Pete Seeger. Speakers included Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

"This Great Period of Transition"

In his speech, Dr. King praised the school for its "noble purpose and creative work" and for having "given the South some of its most responsible leaders in this great period of transition." He predicted that, through concerted nonviolent action, "the future is filled with vast and marvelous possibilities" and concluded, "this is a great time to be alive."*

These were the sentiments of a dangerous radical in 1957. Following the event, the Georgia Commission on Education published a propaganda brochure titled, Highlander Folk School: Communist Training School, Monteagle, Tennessee. It contained photographs of a black man dancing with a white woman and an integrated swimming pool, which outraged mainstream Southerners. The state of Tennessee revoked Highlander's charter, took possession of its land, and locked the doors. The school reopened in 1961 at a new location and continues its efforts today.

Making Civil Rights Collections Available Online

In recent months, the Society has digitized hundreds of photographs from the Highlander collection. These can be seen in our Highlander Folk School image gallery. Other Society civil rights collections are described in Civil Rights and Martin Luther King Jr. Day*, which includes brief audio recordings by Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. Original documents on civil rights struggles in Wisconsin are available at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

* The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., vol 4, pp. 269-276; printed from an audio recording in the Highlander collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

:: Posted January 14, 2010

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